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Books about Books Week: A call to arms.

Books about Books Week: Real Lives Revealed

Last week I got my copy of Rick Roche's new nonfiction reading guide in the Real Stories series (from Libraries Unlimited), titled Real Lives Revealed: A Guide to Reading Interests in Biography.

It is stupendous.

Now, clearly, I am probably biased. I write for the Real Stories series (and more--tune in tomorrow). I also have the pleasure of knowing Rick and knowing what a dedicated and skilled librarian he is. But I'm pretty sure that even if I didn't know Rick from Adam this book would have blown me away.

Real These types of reading guide reference books are designed to help readers (and the librarians who help them find stuff to read, known by the library jargon of "readers' advisors") find titles they might enjoy. To that end, Rick has organized more than 600 titles into biography genres and subgenres, written wonderful summaries of them, given them subject headings (natural language subject headings, a bit easier to use than Dewey headings), and provided "read-alike" suggestions* for all of them. Consider the record for Jeffrey Meyers's biography Somerset Maugham: A Life (a book I've always wanted to read, as I find Maugham very interesting):

"Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was more than just a popular writer of novels, stories, plays, screenplays, essays, and travel books...he was also a doctor, a spy, Red Cross volunteer, art collector, and contract bridge player..Despite the appearance of perfection that he cultivated, he was an unhappy man with low self-esteem, torn between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Jeffrey Meyers combines elements of the adventure story with celebrity reporting and pscyhological insight..."

That is an information-packed description, not only about Maugham, but also about the format of the biography. And then there's his "Now Try" suggestions for further reading:

"[After listing some of Maugham's most famous works]...Like Maugham, magician and escape artist Harry Houdini used his fame when he traveled to hide the fact that he was a spy. William Kalush and Larry Sloman detail Houdini's clandestine operations in The Secret Life of Houdini. British agent T. E. Lawrence traveled under assumed names and met with Arab rebels working to overthrow Turkish rule. Lawrence James tells how Lawrence played up his hero's role to the press and in his memoir in The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia."

That is FANTASTIC. Somerset Maugham to Harry Houdini to T. E. Lawrence. Now I'm not saying every reader who loves the first biography will follow up those suggestions, but they are interesting ones, and they are linked logically (secret lives, etc.). And they are suggestions that were made by a human. They were not simply spit out of a relational database based on sales numbers, and I defy you to find a library catalog that would ever link those books based on subject, even though they are tangentially related.

And that's just the book descriptions (included are such types of biography as Adventure, True Crime, War, Inspirational, Investigative, Coming-of-Age, Cultural, Celebrity, Historical, Political, Science, and Sports). I haven't even mentioned the unbelievable support material, including the timeline and history of biography, list of biography awards, list of biography series, and list of "top biographers," which includes authors' names and the biographies they've written.

Sorry for the length of today's post. I could go on a lot longer, though. All I can say, Rick, is, I am speechless. I've written a couple of these things and you have made me look like an amateur. I know that library budgets are tight right now, but if you work with readers at all I would buy this book for your collection--biographies are always popular with readers, so any tool that helps librarians understand them is well worth it. Especially when it's a tool as comprehensive as this one.

*Welcome to the world of librarianship and its jargon. "Read-alikes" are books that give the reader a similar "feeling" when reading them, while "related reads" are books related to one another primarily by subject. The Maugham and Houdini biographies are "read-alikes," Maugham's biography and Maugham's novels are "related reads."